The tragic death of Comedian Robin Williams, in an apparent suicide, has placed the issues of mental illness, suicide, and associated ignorance and stigma, firmly in the public sphere.
Last year over 6,000 people in the UK took their own lives. Unless you were a family member, friend, or acquaintance, it is unlikely you will be able to name any of them. Their faces, personalities, and problems remain hidden from the public conscious.
The untimely passing of Robin Williams has presented us with a stark reminder of the devastating impact that mental illness can have on an individual and their families - regardless of fame, wealth or status.
Despite, apparently ‘coming a long way’ over the last thirty years, in terms of parity of esteem for mental health problems, and a reduction in stigma, It serves as an uncomfortable, yet necessary wake-up call as to how lacking many people are in the most basic understanding of mental illness.
Mental illness has always been perceived as ‘something that happens to ‘other people’, yet 1 in 4 people across the UK will experience a mental health problem of some description during their lifetime, with between 8-12% of the population suffering from depression in any given year. The facts of the matter are that everyone, directly or indirectly, will be affected by mental illness.
The death of a celebrity in such circumstances always brings out an army of armchair experts and professional trolls who swamp social media with their ignorance and bile. In less than 24 hours the internet has been awash with such pearls of wisdom as – “What did he have to be depressed about? He had millions in the bank, a beautiful wife, and children.”, “He is selfish, plain and simple”, and “He was an alcoholic and a druggie for decades – no wonder he was depressed.” sadly, such ill-conceived attitudes are emanating from a much larger cross-section of society than I expected.
I have no intention to try and analyse the life or problems of Robin Williams. I do not have possession of the facts, nor is it any of my business.
So why do we struggle to get our heads around ‘mental illness’, or more specifically ‘depression’? Firstly, it is an illness that falls outside the parameters of traditional or old-fashioned models of physical health care. An illness that does not always present with visual symptoms or a tangible impact can be a difficult idea to grasp. This is often compounded when individuals attempt to put themselves in another person’s shoes - ‘I lost my job, but I didn’t get depressed’. Ultimately, ‘depression’ is an illness that has biological as well as sociological origins, and such crude attempts to draw comparisons do not stand up to scrutiny.
Secondly, the lack of any meaningful education or health promotion from an early age plots a course of ignorance that is then exacerbated during adolescence and adulthood by outrageous portrayals in the print and broadcast media, of ‘mad axe men’ and ‘lunatics’, and by the propagation of disingenuous correlations between instances of crime and the mentally ill.
Based on that lack of education, media and societal misrepresentation - stigma festers through every aspect of our lives. We make judgements, often unpleasant ones, about the person you work with who is ‘off sick’ with stress, whose colleagues sneer, or the ‘eccentric’ man who lives at the end of the road, or the new mother with post-natal depression, or the rich celebrity, seemingly with it all, who takes his own life…
When people suffering with depression hear such regressive attitudes, hear relatives talking about how ‘we just got on with it in my day’, or hear B-list celebrities on the TV and radio belittle their lived experiences, is it any wonder that they would rather suffer in silence than seek out appropriate help?
Mental illness is truly one of the great health problems of our age, yet it will never receive the respect it deserves or the resources it requires in order to tackle it, as long as the narrative around mental illness is one of stigma, smear, and ridicule.
Robin Williams could have been anyone. He could have been your husband, wife, son, daughter, sister, or brother - his celebrity status is of no relevance. Whilst he was just one man, his death and the accompanying media circus has reflected back to us the ugly epidemic of stigma and ableism that hundreds of thousands of people in the UK endure on a daily basis.